The Gladiatorís Honor
by Michelle Styles
(Harl. Historical, $5.50, PG-13) ISBN 0-373-29417-6
****
Newcomer Michelle Styles ventures into the world of the Roman gladiator for her debut romance. This unusual setting, combined with interesting characters and smooth, polished writing, make The Gladiatorís Honor a very welcome debut indeed.

Roman gentlewoman Julia Antonia has suffered the scandal of a divorce. No matter that it was of her own choosing; she is now living back in her fatherís house, enduring the snide remarks of her social-climbing stepmother. Julia knows that she must live an absolutely exemplary life if she is ever to receive another offer of marriage. However, a chance encounter outside of the baths one day changes everything.

Valens the Thracian is a renowned gladiator, one of Romeís best. He is to fight in the gladiator games honoring the funeral of Julius Caesarís father, and if he is victorious, he will win his freedom. When he accidentally runs into Julia outside the baths, Valens is intrigued to find that she has no idea who he is. Normally women hang all over the gladiators, but this lovely woman treats him like any ordinary man, a novelty that Valens finds refreshing. Julia, aware that she should not be seen speaking to a gladiator, canít help but admire his kindness as he helps her recover from a fall and a twisted ankle.

Valens and Julia part, only to meet again when he arrives at her fatherís door. It is the custom of patrician families to host a gladiator, and Valens has been assigned to Juliaís household. But a gladiator is considered to be one step above a slave, and Juliaís family hopes she will make an advantageous marriage. Sabina Claudia, Juliaís stepmother, treats Valens with contempt. As for Valens and Julia, their attraction to one another is undeniable.

Valens has other problems to face, namely that of Aquilia, a former pirate and slave trader who once captured Valens and sold him into brutal slavery. Now Aquilia is in Rome, a gladiator himself, and also fighting in the tournament. The hatred between Valens and Aquilia will erupt as Valens seeks revenge on the man who almost destroyed him, and Aquilia looks for any avenue to destroy Valens. Julia, for her part, must deal with her malicious ex-husband, with only her father to protect her.

Valens is a well-drawn character, and the glimpses into his world are fascinating. Rome isnít the usual for a romance setting, so perhaps it has a bit of added allure, but Styles creates vivid characters with whom itís easy to empathize. Julia is unwilling to settle for another arranged marriage, and when she meets Valens, sheís stunned to discover her attraction to this gentle, honorable man. If only their stations in life werenít so very different.

The climax is particularly well-done and engrossing. This being a romance, the fate of Valens and Julia isnít really in doubt, but Styles does a credible job of keeping the reader on the edge of her seat. And while the writing occasionally slips into purple territory (Juliaís ďwisp of scandal clinging to her stolaĒ seems to be the only phrase the marketing department could find to use) itís a small distraction. The cover art doesnít match Valenís description, either, as he looks like a red-haired Irishman rather than the dark-haired Roman described in the book. Art department, get with it!

Originally published in England under the Mills and Boon imprint, The Gladiatorís Honor is the first of four planned Roman-era romances by Michelle Styles, and if this debut book is an indication, readers have a lot to look forward to. Itís always a pleasure to discover a strong new voice in romance. Readers, check out Michelle Styles.

--Cathy Sova


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